What is NOT the mission of the church? 1

What is NOT the mission of the church? 1 October 14, 2011

Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert published a new book on the mission of the church What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. I want to be generous in this discussion and I certainly think these guys have the best of intentions. However, this book is extremely frustrating to me and I’m only on page 67.

While DeYoung and Gilbert set out to provide what they think is a more biblical vision of the church’s mission, they have in the end presented a reductionistic definition of mission that cannot be sustained by the New Testament passages to which they appeal. The end result in my view is a sub-biblical understanding of the church’s mission.

This book will no doubt be influential in some circles and I think their argument needs to be critiqued. Of course there are  many things with which I agree, not least on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the nonnegotiable place of proclamation in the church’s mission. I have no intention to go page-by-page and point out my disagreements. And likely what I think means very little to them or those who will read the book. However, I want to flag here a few points in the first two chapters that particularly concern me.

1. DeYoung and Gilbert want to stress that the church’s mission is singularly to make disciples (62). For them, this means that the mission of the church is not justice, mercy and faithfulness in the world. While these are good things that the individual disciples exhibit in response to the Gospel, these things are not to be confused with the church’s mission. This argument is faulty not least because it doesn’t fully grasp the meaning of its own assertion. What does it mean to be a disciple? What is it that the church is to teach disciples? If the mission of the church is discipleship – and on this I couldn’t agree more! – then the activity of discipling means the very things they wish to preclude from the mission. If the mission is to make disciples than the mission is to bring justice, mercy and faithfulness into tangible existence. Furthermore, they completely overlook the fact that the teaching of Jesus noted in the so-called Great Commission includes for Matthew the whole Torah (Matt 5:17-19). The existence that the Twelve minus one were to create among the nations is a Torah-oriented society.

If these things were not enough, what about the commission of Matt 10? DeYoung and Gilbert falsely claim that Jesus never went to a town with the stated purpose of healing or casting out demons. Is this really true? At the global level, Matt 4—9 shows us of what Jesus mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” consisted: proclamation and procurement of the kingdom. Jesus both spoke and acted. This was his mission. To confirm this dual-prong mission one need look no further than the mission of the Twelve in Matt 10. There Jesus sends the Twelve to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God. I’m sorry, but to reduce the miracles of Jesus to simply “corroboration” is wrong. It is true that John’s Jesus does “signs” and not miracles. The synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke) present Jesus’ miracles as foretastes of kingdom existence. Of course they confirm or corroborate the message of the soon-coming kingdom, but they more so inaugurate it. I could say so much more. OK, one more . . . there is an implicit assumption in their thinking that divides the individual disciple from the corporate church. What might be good thing for the individual disciple to do (justice, mercy and faithfulness), is precisely not the priority for the church. This dichotomy is wholly unbiblical in my view.

2. Their handling of John’s commission in John 20:21 is reductionistic and nearsighted. Jesus tells the disciples: “As the father sent me, even so I am sending you”. Readers of John who are fully acquainted with the whole of the Gospel, realize what an extraordinary commission this in fact is. Jesus is saying that the church is to be for the world what he was. As Jesus was the glory of God in the flesh (1:14), so now the church in his absence as it is filled by his Spirit, is to be to the world. John has the grandest expression of ecclesiology in the New Testament. Jesus is no mere model for our mission, we carry on His mission. Furthermore, when read appropriately, passages like John 6:41-59 and John 13, we see that in fact the mission of the church is a cruciformed mission. One thinks of Paul saying in Col. 1:24 that he is filling up in his flesh the sufferings of Christ that are still lacking. It’s not that Paul or John are saying that Jesus death was inadequate to achieve full atonement and reconciliation with God. Rather, it is that the church lays down its life in service to the world as Jesus did. I could not disagree with DeYoung and Gilbert more when they attempt to disconnect service from the church’s mission. I just can’t believe they are making this argument! What does John 13 mean?

3. For the life of me, I can’t see why this book needed to be written. Why would we ever want to narrow the mission of the church? God is reconciling all things to himself (Col 1:20). They are of course right that the proclamation of the Gospel is central, even the core of the mission, and a church that ceases to do this is no longer the church of Jesus. But their approach to reading the Great Commission texts so reductionistically is bad Bible interpretation in my view.

In my judgment, they do not provide a more biblically robust understanding of the church’s mission. I have only read two chapters of the book. There are still chapters on the Story of the Bible (3), the Gospel (4), and the Kingdom (5). But I can see where this is heading and I think there are real issues here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thank you, Joel, for going after this book. It’s terribly misguided in trying to reconstrue missiology in more exclusively spiritual terms, setting aside one of the undeniable advances of evangelical Christianity in the last forty years.

  • Thank you, Joel, for going after this book. It’s terribly misguided in trying to reconstrue missiology in more exclusively spiritual terms, setting aside one of the undeniable advances of evangelical Christianity in the last forty years.

  • FoxRunImages

    Your comments in point 2 sound a lot like what I have been reading recently in Glasser and Van Engen for my missions class at seminary.

  • FoxRunImages

    Your comments in point 2 sound a lot like what I have been reading recently in Glasser and Van Engen for my missions class at seminary.

  • rachel.louisa

    Joel, thanks for this (and please don’t think that what you write won’t matter to those who read the book!) These are important issues, and I don’t think Kevin and Greg are hoping for a one-sided conversation; I’m pretty sure they’d welcome the discussion. Nice post – I hope Kevin will respond on his blog, and get a conversation going.

  • rachel.louisa

    Joel, thanks for this (and please don’t think that what you write won’t matter to those who read the book!) These are important issues, and I don’t think Kevin and Greg are hoping for a one-sided conversation; I’m pretty sure they’d welcome the discussion. Nice post – I hope Kevin will respond on his blog, and get a conversation going.

  • Anonymous

    Wholeheartedly agree. I’ve read the book in its entirety and was more horrified the more I read.

  • Anonymous

    Wholeheartedly agree. I’ve read the book in its entirety and was more horrified the more I read.

  • Jim Dekker

    Joel, I have not read this book so I won’t comment on the accuracy of your critique, however, the points you make, I find, are a helpful balance through the mess of old ‘word/deed’ debates. It sounds like the authors are still in that debate whereas I find your comments here not just ‘both and’ but also including a depth of biblical theology that is robust and speaks to this generation.

  • Jim Dekker

    Joel, I have not read this book so I won’t comment on the accuracy of your critique, however, the points you make, I find, are a helpful balance through the mess of old ‘word/deed’ debates. It sounds like the authors are still in that debate whereas I find your comments here not just ‘both and’ but also including a depth of biblical theology that is robust and speaks to this generation.

  • Amy Phillips

    Thank you for pointing out that as Christians, our mission is to continue to lead with instruction from the Word and fullfilling what Jesus came here to do. His teaching is the way to the Father and to build on His Kingdom – which we are ALL apart of! His Kingdom come, His will be done!

  • Amy Phillips

    Thank you for pointing out that as Christians, our mission is to continue to lead with instruction from the Word and fullfilling what Jesus came here to do. His teaching is the way to the Father and to build on His Kingdom – which we are ALL apart of! His Kingdom come, His will be done!

  • Thanks for this, Joel. I must say that when I saw this book a few weeks ago, my heart sank. I knew already what they’d be arguing and how they’d take a very narrow conception of the gospel to its unbliblcal (anti-biblical) extreme conclusion. My heart sank because evangelicals are finally getting clued in to the fact that–as you say–following Jesus means doing things as communities that Jesus says to do that are hugely on God’s heart–serving people, doing justice, concretely loving mercy.

    For this book to advocate that while these are nice, if you can find the time, they aren’t essential to the gospel is to risk endorsing the complacency of far too many ‘Christians’.

    I don’t think you’re ranting at all. The book does need to be engaged, but in many ways it’s tough not to get pretty fired up about its call to pull back from robustly following Jesus.

    Thanks, bro!

    • Sharad Yadav

      What he said.

    • Joel and all,
      On my blog today I chatted with a friend who asked if my rhetoric wasn’t unkind and unfair. Looking back, I do think my comments above weren’t life-giving, constructively critical, or kind. I know Kevin and Greg are seeking the best, so while I’m quite critical of their argument, I’ll engage in a more generous spirit.

  • Thanks for this, Joel. I must say that when I saw this book a few weeks ago, my heart sank. I knew already what they’d be arguing and how they’d take a very narrow conception of the gospel to its unbliblcal (anti-biblical) extreme conclusion. My heart sank because evangelicals are finally getting clued in to the fact that–as you say–following Jesus means doing things as communities that Jesus says to do that are hugely on God’s heart–serving people, doing justice, concretely loving mercy.

    For this book to advocate that while these are nice, if you can find the time, they aren’t essential to the gospel is to risk endorsing the complacency of far too many ‘Christians’.

    I don’t think you’re ranting at all. The book does need to be engaged, but in many ways it’s tough not to get pretty fired up about its call to pull back from robustly following Jesus.

    Thanks, bro!

    • Sharad Yadav

      What he said.

    • Joel and all,
      On my blog today I chatted with a friend who asked if my rhetoric wasn’t unkind and unfair. Looking back, I do think my comments above weren’t life-giving, constructively critical, or kind. I know Kevin and Greg are seeking the best, so while I’m quite critical of their argument, I’ll engage in a more generous spirit.

  • Chuck Colson

    Joel,
    Thanks for reviewing this book! I am relieved to see that someone is taking up the challenge.

    I normally find DeYoung very encouraging, but he appears to be reacting against the Kuyperian residue within his Dutch circles. It is really unfortunate. For Gilbert, this is a hallmark theme of the Reformed Baptist movement. It is just really predictable.

    Please do continue reviewing because a broader discussion is needed. As some of the young guys within TGC, they are vying to overcome Stott’s paradigm for Christian mission that operates in Keller’s circles.

    And, Kevin seems to be a fair man, hopefully all can engage constructively.

  • Chuck Colson

    Joel,
    Thanks for reviewing this book! I am relieved to see that someone is taking up the challenge.

    I normally find DeYoung very encouraging, but he appears to be reacting against the Kuyperian residue within his Dutch circles. It is really unfortunate. For Gilbert, this is a hallmark theme of the Reformed Baptist movement. It is just really predictable.

    Please do continue reviewing because a broader discussion is needed. As some of the young guys within TGC, they are vying to overcome Stott’s paradigm for Christian mission that operates in Keller’s circles.

    And, Kevin seems to be a fair man, hopefully all can engage constructively.

  • Justin

    Well, just wait till you get to their chapters on social justice… They actually go so far as to reduce the meaning of justice to “fair process” under a fair law (without any restorative element but with a large helping of conservative economic philosophy). They even say we should stop talking about justice and replace that language with love. I wrote a response to what they have to say about justice here: http://jloudon.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/do-nothing-justice/

  • Justin

    Well, just wait till you get to their chapters on social justice… They actually go so far as to reduce the meaning of justice to “fair process” under a fair law (without any restorative element but with a large helping of conservative economic philosophy). They even say we should stop talking about justice and replace that language with love. I wrote a response to what they have to say about justice here: http://jloudon.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/do-nothing-justice/

  • Anonymous

    Saint Augustine couldn’t do it, but can someone else explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 6000+ years I think we are all due an intelligent explanation. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs, please. Just the facts that we know from the story. But first, do an Internet search: First Scandal.

  • Anonymous

    Saint Augustine couldn’t do it, but can someone else explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After 6000+ years I think we are all due an intelligent explanation. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs, please. Just the facts that we know from the story. But first, do an Internet search: First Scandal.

  • Ken Hamster

    I see that this blog is now censoring i.e. deleting comments. Sad!

  • For what it is worth, a debate on the same topic is happening at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school on October 27th. I guess the issue is making its rounds.
    http://www.henrycenter.org/programs/trinity-debates/

  • For what it is worth, a debate on the same topic is happening at Trinity Evangelical Divinity school on October 27th. I guess the issue is making its rounds.
    http://www.henrycenter.org/programs/trinity-debates/

  • Mike W

    Please keep reviewing this book and others of it’s ilk. I’d love to say that there is a battle going on in my neck of the woods, but basically people have swallowed this line for some time. I get the hunch that these books simply do not believe in the church, or believe that the ‘church’ are the professionals who are service providers for the individuals (who are not the church).

  • Mike W

    Please keep reviewing this book and others of it’s ilk. I’d love to say that there is a battle going on in my neck of the woods, but basically people have swallowed this line for some time. I get the hunch that these books simply do not believe in the church, or believe that the ‘church’ are the professionals who are service providers for the individuals (who are not the church).

  • Mike W

    If your frustration levels can take it, you may want to check out “The Trellis and the Vine” by Tony Payne and Col Marshal. Slightly different, but not by much

  • Mike W

    If your frustration levels can take it, you may want to check out “The Trellis and the Vine” by Tony Payne and Col Marshal. Slightly different, but not by much

  • Abe J.

    I think Newbigin said it best in his “Mission in Christ’s Way.”

    “So words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb. It is stupid to set them against each other. It is, for example, stupid to say: “The one thing that matters is to go everywhere and preach the gospel; all other activities such as schools and hospitals and programs for social action are at best merely auxiliary and at worst irrelevant.” Why should people believe our preaching that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus if they see no evidence that disease and ignorance and cruelty and injustice are being challenged and overcome? Why should they believe our words if there is nothing happening to authenticate them?

    On the other hand, it is equally stupid to say: ” Preaching is a waste of time. Forget it and get on with tackling the real human problems of poverty, injustice and oppression.” That is to repeat the folly of the people who are fed in the desert. It is to confuse the sign with the thing it points to. Our best programs are not the kingdom of God; they are full of our pride and ambition – as the world easily sees. But apart from these obvious inconsistencies, we surely now that human beings have a greater and more glorious destiny than even the best of our programs can offer. To a hungry man a good meal looks like heaven; when he has eaten it he knows that it is not. We know that our true life is beyond our grasp, and we are deceived when we invest all our hopes, and encourage others to invest all their hopes, in programs that do not reach beyond the horizon of this present age.

    I know that some will denounce this language as escapist, but in fact it is simply realist. The best of our programs are still full of the seeds of their own corruption. We do not establish God’s kingdom. That kingdom, that kingly rule, has been given to us in the form of the suffering servant, the wounded healer, the crucified liberator. God’s kingdom is a given fact, and our actions for justice and compassion are at the very best only signs, pointers to help men and women to turn round so that it becomes possible for them also to believe in the reality of that kingdom, to have a foretaste of its liberating power, to follow in the way of the cross and to find in it life – a life that death cannot threaten.

    Our preaching is mere empty words if it does not have behind it a costly engagement with the powers of evil, with the powers that rob men and women of their humanity, and if it does not call men and women to share in the same costly engagement…“

  • Abe J.

    I think Newbigin said it best in his “Mission in Christ’s Way.”

    “So words without deeds are empty, but deeds without words are dumb. It is stupid to set them against each other. It is, for example, stupid to say: “The one thing that matters is to go everywhere and preach the gospel; all other activities such as schools and hospitals and programs for social action are at best merely auxiliary and at worst irrelevant.” Why should people believe our preaching that the kingdom of God has come near in Jesus if they see no evidence that disease and ignorance and cruelty and injustice are being challenged and overcome? Why should they believe our words if there is nothing happening to authenticate them?

    On the other hand, it is equally stupid to say: ” Preaching is a waste of time. Forget it and get on with tackling the real human problems of poverty, injustice and oppression.” That is to repeat the folly of the people who are fed in the desert. It is to confuse the sign with the thing it points to. Our best programs are not the kingdom of God; they are full of our pride and ambition – as the world easily sees. But apart from these obvious inconsistencies, we surely now that human beings have a greater and more glorious destiny than even the best of our programs can offer. To a hungry man a good meal looks like heaven; when he has eaten it he knows that it is not. We know that our true life is beyond our grasp, and we are deceived when we invest all our hopes, and encourage others to invest all their hopes, in programs that do not reach beyond the horizon of this present age.

    I know that some will denounce this language as escapist, but in fact it is simply realist. The best of our programs are still full of the seeds of their own corruption. We do not establish God’s kingdom. That kingdom, that kingly rule, has been given to us in the form of the suffering servant, the wounded healer, the crucified liberator. God’s kingdom is a given fact, and our actions for justice and compassion are at the very best only signs, pointers to help men and women to turn round so that it becomes possible for them also to believe in the reality of that kingdom, to have a foretaste of its liberating power, to follow in the way of the cross and to find in it life – a life that death cannot threaten.

    Our preaching is mere empty words if it does not have behind it a costly engagement with the powers of evil, with the powers that rob men and women of their humanity, and if it does not call men and women to share in the same costly engagement…“

  • Peter G.

    “In my judgment, they provide a more biblically robust understanding of the church’s mission.”

    Is there a missing word there?

    • Joel Willitts

      fixed thanks

  • Peter G.

    “In my judgment, they provide a more biblically robust understanding of the church’s mission.”

    Is there a missing word there?

  • John C

    Great Newbiggin quote above.
    I guess this book is itself testimony to the very powerful recent case for a more holistic understanding of mission coming from within conservative evangelical circles – esp from Keller, Tim Chester, Chris Wright etc who have developed Stott’s earlier arguments. Wright’s book on The Mission of God is especially compelling.

  • John C

    Great Newbiggin quote above.
    I guess this book is itself testimony to the very powerful recent case for a more holistic understanding of mission coming from within conservative evangelical circles – esp from Keller, Tim Chester, Chris Wright etc who have developed Stott’s earlier arguments. Wright’s book on The Mission of God is especially compelling.

  • Concerned Pastor

    Thank you, Joel, for critiquing this book. I’ve read the whole thing, and am deeply disturbed by the argument. Even more troubling, I’m on staff with a senior pastor who is disseminating this book to the church’s leadership. I imagine others are doing the same.

    The church takes two steps forward, and then steps back.

    • Freddy

      Talk to your pastor about it. I’m sure he would rather you do that than run your mouth in a blog comment. That immature & irresponsible.

  • Concerned Pastor

    Thank you, Joel, for critiquing this book. I’ve read the whole thing, and am deeply disturbed by the argument. Even more troubling, I’m on staff with a senior pastor who is disseminating this book to the church’s leadership. I imagine others are doing the same.

    The church takes two steps forward, and then steps back.

    • Freddy

      Talk to your pastor about it. I’m sure he would rather you do that than run your mouth in a blog comment. That immature & irresponsible.

  • Brian MacArevey

    I had not heard of this book until now…I am thankful that you are reviewing it and tackling these issues. This is very typical reasoning within the YR&R folks, and I agree that it is deeply problematic. I’m just not sure what the gospel if it does not include the justice, mercy, and faithfulness of God being brought “into tangible existance”.

  • Brian MacArevey

    I had not heard of this book until now…I am thankful that you are reviewing it and tackling these issues. This is very typical reasoning within the YR&R folks, and I agree that it is deeply problematic. I’m just not sure what the gospel if it does not include the justice, mercy, and faithfulness of God being brought “into tangible existance”.

  • Thanks for this, Joel. Appreciate your insights and, quite honestly, I’m not surprised. DeYoung’s high ecclesiology has gotten in the way of his hermeneutics on previous occasions.

  • Thanks for this, Joel. Appreciate your insights and, quite honestly, I’m not surprised. DeYoung’s high ecclesiology has gotten in the way of his hermeneutics on previous occasions.